It’s been two decades since Cristiano Ronaldo last missed the Champions League.
The evergreen Manchester United forward, now 37, has racked up 183 appearances in 19 seasons in Europe’s premier league, scoring 140 goals – both setting an all-time record.
Portuguese forward Ronaldo’s figure of 140 is more than double anyone in history except four players – Lionel Messi (125), Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema (both 86) and Raul (71).
But after the Red Devils’ hugely disappointing campaign in 2021-22, new boss Erik ten Hag and his squad now face a return to the Europa League with a clash against Real Sociedad on Thursday.
If Ronaldo, who has spent United’s last four games on the bench, plays a part in the game, it will be only his third appearance in Europe’s second-rate league in his long and illustrious career, and his first in 20 years, as he at Sporty Lisbon.
But when were the last two and what happened in those matches? Below, Sports post takes a trip down memory lane to remember the historic event…
Cristiano Ronaldo (pictured) to play in the Europa League for the first time in 20 years
Erik ten Hag (right) and his side will play in their first group match against Real Sociedad on Thursday
Ronaldo’s last appearance in the Europa League was in October 2002 for Sporting Lisbon vs Partizan Belgrade – below Sportsmail takes a trip down memory lane to remember the occasion
Breaking through at Sporting
Laszlo Boloni, manager of the first team of Sporting Clube de Portugal, also known as Sporting Lisbon, immediately recognized Cristiano Ronaldo’s potential.
Talented winger Ronaldo broke through at the Portuguese club as a teenager (pictured)
The Romanian raised the teenager through the ranks, making him the first player to represent the Under-16, U17 and U18 clubs, as well as the B team and the first team, all in the same season.
Ronaldo only had one season of senior football with the Greens and Whites before making a move to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United, where he was molded into one of the best players in the world.
His Primeira Liga debut was on 29 September 2002 against Braga, and on 7 October he scored a double in a 3-0 win against Moreirense, putting him firmly on the radar of several top European clubs, including United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Before starting in the competition, however, he was thrown into the first team for two matches in the UEFA Cup, now known as the Europa League, arguably helping to launch his senior career.
What happened in the first leg?
Sporting came up against Serbian Partizan Belgrade in the first round, and in the first leg, in the Portuguese capital, Ronaldo was named on the bench, with skilled winger Ricardo Quaresma in the starting line-up.
Partizan took the lead in the eleventh minute via an own goal from Hugo and although Tonito equalized, Andrija Delibasic gave Partizan the lead again eight minutes before half time. Boloni had seen enough.
In the break he made a double substitution, putting in the wide legged Ronaldo and Rodrigo Tello and eliminating Pedro Barbosa and Rui Jorge. However, Ivica Iliev scored in the 78th minute to give the visitors something to defend in Eastern Europe.
What happened in the second leg?
Ronaldo had clearly impressed enough to start the second leg – four days after his league debut – behind closed doors in the Serbian capital, and grainy YouTube footage shows flashes of the promise that brought him up to date with United.
Crisp-faced Ronaldo, in an odd-looking black kit with yellow sleeves and number 28, got a lot of the ball from teammates, who clearly trusted him despite his young age.
Ronaldo played almost two hours over the two legs, as a result of which Sporting lost 6-4 to Partizan
The footage shows Ronaldo demonstrating his now-trademarked deception, tricking defenders into fouls with mesmerizing transfers, feints and tempo changes.
He is brutally knocked to the ground by opposing players several times, but apart from a brief moment of frustration, watching Austria referee Fritz Stuchlik with pleading eyes, there is little of the nagging that is now commonplace.
In fact, after Tonito helped Sporting into the lead, with a fair bit of control, Ronaldo saw him cross the striker for Vitali Kutuzov, who headed the post before kicking in to make it 2-0 and 3-3 tonight. .
After attempting a spectacular bicycle kick and a decent scream for a penalty that was dismissed after sneaking into the penalty area by Milan Stojanoski, he was eliminated with Kutuzov in the 74th minute for Marius Niculae and Barbosa.
Delibasic pulled one back, but Pedro Contreras’ goal made it 3-1 on the night, 3-3 overall, putting the game in extra time. With ten minutes until the penalties, strikers Dejan Zivkovic and then Damir Cakar scored, while Partizan took the lead 6-4.
Ronaldo, however, had made his mark. United called.
Why did Ronaldo want to leave this summer?
The now seasoned superstar, despite scoring 24 goals in 38 appearances in all competitions last season, could not help United finish higher than sixth after being knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid in the round of 16. .
Ronaldo made his position clear to the club and new manager Ten Hag: nothing but the Champions League was good enough, and United that had not qualified wanted to leave.
But no concrete offers came: Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal were interested and made an ‘obscene’ contract offer but was never a realistic option, Chelsea owner Todd Boehly was enthusiastic but then manager Thomas Tuchel turned down the transfer.
So after the transfer window closed earlier this month, it looks like Ronaldo will have to stay at least until January, raising the prospect of another Europa League appearance twenty years after his first steps in the competition.
Ronaldo announced his intention to leave this summer because he wanted Champions League football – now he could be forced to compete in the Europa League, starting on Thursday night
Following the club’s 4-0 humiliation against Brentford, Ronaldo now appears to be second-choice up front, with Marcus Rashford the preferred choice after his resurgence amid Ten Hag’s desire for speed, mobility and forward thrust.
Ronaldo, who lacked competitive edge, could thus be put to good use to lead United’s attack against Real Sociedad at Old Trafford on Thursday night.
Imanol Alguacil’s side got off to a mixed start to the season, sitting ninth in LaLiga after two wins, a draw and a loss in their first four league games of the season.
They were humiliated 4-1 at home against Spanish giants Barcelona and faced another star-studded side, with United in fine form, after four consecutive wins since the Brentford horror show.
The Basque club can boast former Manchester City midfielder David Silva, winger Mikel Oyarzabal and striker Umar Sadiq in their ranks.
A far cry from the Partizan side of 2002, that’s for sure…